Part three of the ‘If I were [Party X]’s campaign strategist’ series brings us to Labour.
The strategy for a major party is very different from that of a smaller party. Rather than trying to grab attention public attention and target niche concerns, a major party needs a broad-based platform that will appeal to most of New Zealand society, while containing unique elements that make it more attractive than its counterpart. For a centre-left party like Labour, the choice is on which issues to go left and when to stick more closely to the centre.
The problem with playing for the centre is that this is the realm of image politics, rather than substance. The policy differences between the parties are so small that the politics becomes a rhetoric/popularity contest and Labour’s competition, National, has style over substance in spades in John Key. No, Labour must find areas in which it can create a distinctive difference with National: these must be issues on which voters will agree with Labour policy and are sufficiently left-wing that Key cannot follow. To use a boxing analogy, National’s tactic is to stick close to Labour, holding Labour’s arms in and making little jabs; Labour needs to back away to free its arms.
Labour has already hit on issues where it can do this successfully. The first is assets. Labour is set to block the sale of Auckland Airport into foreign ownership and to buy back the railways from foreign owners that have abused it. The public reaction to seeing strategic assets kept in New Zealand hands has been very positive; people do not like seeing infrastructure we rely on being asset-stripped and billions in profits generated in this country flowing overseas. National has floundered on the issue. And well they might, National is the free market party; keeping important assets in New Zealand ownership is totally contrary to their core beliefs. Labour must look to build on the assets theme with policy to return more important assets to New Zealand control and reduce the flow of profits offshore.
The second is wages and work rights. Again, National can’t follow Labour left: Key is on record saying “we would love to see wages drop“, National consistently votes against improved work rights (most recently the meal break legislation), and National’s one piece of workrights and wages legislation is the 90-Day Bill to remove employees’ rights when they start a new job. Labour can lead here by promising to lift the minimum wage to $15 by 2011, by introducing Multi-Employer Collective Agreements to strengthen workers’ bargaining power, and promising a timeline to five weeks’ annual leave in line with most developed countries. Let National oppose those policies and remind everyone what Key really thinks should happen to wages.
On tax cuts, kneecap National. There is a principled case for general tax cuts, inflation raises the portion of tax paid in real terms and not all people get relief through Working for Families and other tax breaks. So, make the cuts, make them quick, the bulk coming in on October 1, make them a decent size, and make them apply to everyone. For example, cut GST to 10% starting with a 1% cut on Oct 1 and 0.5% annual cuts thereafter (that’s what the Conservatives in Canada did and it was popular, it’s also disinflationary) and introduce a tax-free bracket starting at, say $5000 on October 1, and rising to $10,000. Put the money up-front and force National to adopt the program.
In inter-party relations, keep options open but face the fact that the Maori Party is likely to win most or all of the Maori seats and is likely to be Kingmaker. Maori voters prefer Labour to National but the bad blood between the Maori Party and Labour must be put aside.
Finally, get out the vote. It remains as true as ever that the Right has the money and the Left has the people. All the evidence is that most of the enrolled non-vote are working-class who would otherwise vote Labour. Get them to excerise their democratic rights and the underlying Left majority will be revealed. How to do that? Listen to them, design policy for their needs, and make sure campaign materials speak to them.